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Summary

This report reviews three Iranian laws enacted to lift the sovereign immunity of other countries and provides an overview of domestic litigation and recent legislative activity on the topic.  According to the language of the legislation and various articles by authors in the Iranian government and academia, the three relevant laws are designed as negative reciprocity, a deterrent against violations of the sovereign immunity of Iran by other countries.  One of three laws is specifically aimed at the United States.  Pursuant to that law, an Iranian businessman received a favorable judgment against the US in 2003, but enforcement was unsuccessful.  A pending bill seeks to intensify anti-US measures in response to recent US court decisions against the Iranian government.

I.  Laws Lifting Sovereign Immunity of the US or Other Countries

The following Iranian laws lift the sovereign immunity of the US or other countries:

A.  Law on Combating Financial Support of Terrorism

According to article 12 of the Law on Combating Financial Support of Terrorism,[1] which was enacted in 2016, the first-degree criminal courts of Tehran have jurisdiction to try international crimes of terrorism that are committed against the Islamic Republic of Iran, regardless of whether the action occurred abroad or within the territory of Iran.  In this Law, there is no specific reference to foreign states; however, article 12 could be interpreted as lifting the sovereign immunity of a subject foreign state.

B.   Act on Jurisdiction of the Judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Try Civil Cases Against Foreign Governments

The Act on Jurisdiction of the Judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Try Civil Cases Against Foreign Governments,[2] enacted in 2012, provides that, in order to combat and prevent terrorism and violations of international law, eligible natural and legal persons may file actions for damages with the Public and Revolutionary Court of Tehran against foreign governments that have violated the sovereign immunity of Iran or its officials.  The Court must investigate such claims and issue an appropriate judgment.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains a list of foreign governments subject to this countermeasure.  Governments that assist listed foreign governments in violating Iran’s sovereign immunity are also subject to such measures.[3]

In rendering judgment the Court must determine the degree of damages according to comparable judgments issued by the foreign state in question.  Assets of foreign governments are not immune from enforcement under the Act unless immune under international agreements that are binding on Iran, with some exceptions.  Attorney fees and litigation costs awarded are to be deposited with the Iranian National Treasury after enforcement of the judgment.[4]

The Public and Revolutionary Court may assert personal jurisdiction over civil cases brought against foreign governments (including agents, officials, or entities related to or controlled by such foreign governments) if (1) the victim, or his/her descendants or next of kin, are Iranian nationals, either at the time the alleged incident occurred or when the case was initiated; or (2) the victim was employed by the Iranian government when the damage occurred.[5]

In furtherance of this Act, a special international division of the Public and Revolutionary Court has been created.[6]

C.  Law Intensifying Countermeasures Against the US Government’s Terrorist Activities

The 1989 Law Intensifying Countermeasures Against the US Government’s Terrorist Activities has the stated purpose of countering the US government’s measures and obligates the President of Iran to “take the necessary measures to arrest and punish the Americans and their direct and indirect agents who have been sentenced in the Iranian judicial courts.”[7]  All states cooperating directly or indirectly with the US in “kidnapping Iranian nationals or plotting against their lives” are subject to this Law,[8] and all US citizens, agents, and other countries cooperating with the US in “abducting and entering into plots against the life of Iranian citizens and interests of [Iran]” must be tried in Iran’s domestic courts on the basis of Islamic law.[9]

The Law Intensifying Countermeasures is valid and enforceable from the date of enactment “for as long as the US President is empowered to conduct inhuman acts against the lives and interests of the Iranian nationals and no action has been taken to officially abrogate it.”[10]

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II.  Domestic Litigation and Court Judgments

In 2003, a Tehran court awarded approximately half a billion dollars in damages to an Iranian businessman, who was abducted in 1992 in a sting operation by American undercover customs officers in the Bahamas.  The businessman had been charged with a violation of US sanctions against Libya, and was accordingly held in a US jail for approximately four months.  After release, he successfully filed a lawsuit in a Tehran court under the existing Law Intensifying Countermeasures Against the US Government’s Terrorist Activities (discussed above). 

In its 2003 ruling, a Tehran court accused US investigators of “kidnapping, false imprisonment, using force, battering, abusing, and ultimately inflicting physical and psychological injuries.”  A writ of enforcement was issued, requiring the US to respond to that ruling by paying damages or presenting a list of assets to be seized as compensation.  When the US disregarded the writ, the plaintiff identified the American Embassy as the defendant’s most valuable asset.  The Iranian Judiciary dismissed the claim that the US Embassy in Tehran could be sold to pay for the judgment.  According to news reports, the Tehran deputy prosecutor stated that, “[b]ased on international laws, embassies cannot be sold or confiscated.”[11]

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III.  Other Developments

According to various governmental news publications, including the Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency (ICANA), the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting News Agency (IRIB), and the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), on May 17, 2016, the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran passed the general outline of a bill to Compel the Government to Pursue Indemnification for Damages Caused by the Actions of the United States Against the Iranian People.[12]  If the bill were adopted, the Iranian government would be required to demand indemnification for damages allegedly caused by the US since the 1953 coup d’etat.  The bill indicates that it is intended as a countermeasure against the United States, according to news sources. 

Various Iranian officials have stated that the bill is mostly in retaliation against (1) the April 20, 2016, decision of the US Supreme Court to award over US$2 billion in frozen Iranian funds to families of the victims of the 1983 Beirut attack;[13] and (2) the March 9, 2016, decision of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York ordering Iran to pay approximately US$10 billion in damages to the families of victims who were killed in the September 11, 2001, tragedy.[14]  Mohammad Javad Zarif, the minister of foreign affairs of Iran, reportedly condemned these judgments in an April 29, 2016, official letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in which he stated that “[t]he government of the Islamic Republic of Iran retains its right to take legal actions, including the necessary countermeasures, aiming to restitute the benefits and rights of the Iranian people against the violations of the international law.”[15]

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Prepared by Shadi Karimi
Foreign and Comparative Law Consultant
June 2016


[1] Law on Combating Financial Support of Terrorism of 29 Mar. 2016, http://rooznamehrasmi.ir/Laws/ShowLaw. aspx?Code=10219 (in Persian), archived at https://perma.cc/DWC7-J72J.

[2] Act on Jurisdiction of the Judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Try Civil Cases Against Foreign Governments of 8 May 2012, http://rooznamehrasmi.ir/Laws/ShowLaw.aspx?Code=715 (in Persian; all translations by author), archived at https://perma.cc/7VR4-ZHCW; see also Mahdi Haddadi, Jurisdiction of Iranian Courts to Deal with Civil Lawsuits Against Foreign States, 47 Int’l Letters Soc. & Humanistic Sci. 46, 46–53 (2015), https://www.scipress.com/ILSHS.47.46.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/S9WD-UJNW.

[3] Act on Jurisdiction of the Judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran arts. 1–3.

[4] Id. arts. 4, 5, 8, 9.

[5] Id. arts. 6, 7.

[6] International Court Will Hear Cases Related to Criminal Activities of Foreign Nationals and Lawsuits Brought by Private Persons Against Foreign States and Nationals, Ekhtebar (July 14, 2013), http://www.ekhtebar.com/دادسرای-امور-بین-الملل-تشکیل-خواهد-شد /#more-4199  (in Persian), archived at https://perma.cc/UZL6-V87F (citing Enforcement Regulation of the Act on Jurisdiction of the Judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Try Civil Cases Against Foreign Governments of 1 July 2013, http://isna.ir/fa/news/92101709099/آیین-نامه-قانون-صلاحیت-دادگستری-در-رسیدگی (in Persian), archived at https://perma.cc/4E9R-9NNN).

[7] Law Intensifying Countermeasures Against the U.S. Government’s Terrorist Activities of 1 Nov. 1989, sole art., http://rc.majlis.ir/fa/law/show/91723 (in Persian), archived at https://perma.cc/AMR7-YK9F.

[8] Id. n.1.

[9] Id. n.2.

[10] Id. n.3.

[11] Michael Theodoulou, Tehran Court Rules Against US, Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 3, 2003), http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0203/p06s01-wome.html, archived at https://perma.cc/7LNX-VD9D; Michael Theodoulou, Iran: US Embassy Is Seized Again to Settle £270m “Compensation” Order, The Times (Apr. 13, 2007), http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1816637/posts, archived at https://perma.cc/D6XB-W755; Iran Says US Embassy Not for Sale, Iran Focus (Apr. 16, 2007), http://www.iranfocus.com/en/index. php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10896:iran-says-us-embassy-not-for-sale&catid=4&Itemid=109, archived at https://perma.cc/V93E-CG3K.

[12] Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran Passes Urgent Outline of Bill to Demand Damages from United States, ICANA (May 15, 2016), http://www.roobahnews.com/index.php/component/content/article/74-latest-news/16916-1395-02-26-10-35-35 (in Persian), archived at https://perma.cc/Y6KV-XR9W; Marina Alshalan, Iran’s Grievance Against the United States: United States Attempts to Confiscate Iranian Assets Through Judicial Actions, ISNA (May 16, 2016), available at http://ir.sputniknews.com/iran/20160516/1500555.html (in Persian), archived at https://perma.cc/V82L-M9K7; Islamic Consultative Assembly: Government Should Demand Damages from U.S., RFI (May 17, 2016), http://fa.rfi.fr/مجلس-شورای-اسلامی-دولت-باید-از-آمریکا-خسارت-بخواهد-20160517/ایران (in Persian), archived at https://perma.cc/F5H3-JNCW; Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Strong Protest Against U.S. Court Judgments, Tasnim News (Apr. 26, 2016), http://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1395/02/07/1058859/اعتراض-شدید-وزارت-خارجه-ایران-به-آرای-دادگاه-های-آمریکا (in Persian), archived at https://perma.cc/F6ZB-URTY.

[13] Bank Markazi v. Peterson, No. 14-770 (U.S. Sup. Ct., Apr. 20, 2016), http://www.supremecourt.gov/ opinions/15pdf/14-770_9o6b.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/85SC-V2HZ.

[14] In Re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, No. 03-cv-09848 (S.D.N.Y., Mar. 9, 2016).

[15] Zarif: U.S. Court Judgments Are Against International Laws and Principles, Press TV (Apr. 29, 2016), http://www.presstv.ir/DetailFa/2016/04/29/463062/Iran-US-UN (in Persian), archived at https://perma.cc/H7DJ-U2PM.

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Last Updated: 10/13/2016